We Built This: Raquel Willis Is The Freedom Fighter Kids Should Be Reading About

"I have created spaces for reclamation and resilience for people who have all the power within themselves to change the world."

Raquel Willis is dynamic in every way imaginable.

Long before she became the first trans woman to take on a leadership position at Out magazine, she was advocating for the safety, empowerment and rights of people who identify as trans, especially black women. Before taking on the position in December, she was a national organizer for the Transgender Law Center.

Whether it be penning essays on society’s gross neglect of the high murder rates for trans women, forming healing justice spaces through Black Trans Circles or even designing the Black Trans Flag, Willis has shown up time and again for black trans women.

HuffPost is highlighting Willis’ work through “We Built This,” a photo series celebrating the black history makers of today. Willis talked to us about finding her activist roots in the church, urging the world to show up for black trans women and marrying her advocacy work with journalism.

What have you built?

I have built morale amongst marginalized people, amongst trans women of color. I have built opportunities for storytelling and elevating experiences that we often don’t hear, that we often don’t see in the mainstream. I have created spaces for healing from different layers of oppression and violence, and I have created spaces for reclamation and resilience for people who have all the power within themselves to change the world.

I read that you were raised in the church. I find your story very familiar and very common, not only for myself but for a lot of people who are doing the work. And I want to know how that experience — being brought up in the church — informed your view of yourself as a trans woman and also your activism.

I did grow up in the Catholic Church, and my parents were very, very religious. They were my confirmation teachers. If you don’t know, confirmation is the rite of passage into adulthood for Catholics. So they were my teachers, and it was really serious, and I just feel like I had a complicated relationship with Catholicism and with religion. Obviously, on one hand, I learned so much about stewardship and really using my place in the world and my privileges to positively impact the people around me. And also I had to find my own journey to power within my identity as a transgender person and a queer person. So it’s complicated. I think that there’s so many beautiful things about spirituality that I clinged to, and, really, it’s about agency. It’s about finding what fits you and not trying to fit into a box that other people tell you you should fit into.

You are creating an indelible mark on history, not just as the first trans woman to be appointed to this high-level position at Out but also through the work that you’ve done with Transgender Law Center. What brought you there? Can you talk about the work that you did, especially in creating initiatives and programs like Black Trans Circles?

I always valued storytelling. I studied journalism in college, but while I was there I kind of realized also that this idea that we should strip away the flavor of our identities and our experiences from our storytelling was flawed and that it didn’t really reflect the myriad of ways in which people exist in the world. And so through my first jobs as a reporter at a small newspaper in Georgia and having to be stealth and not talk about my identities out of fear of losing my job or fear of being unsafe, I realized that I wanted to elevate more authentic portrayals of marginalized people. Around this time, the movement for black lives was really gaining steam, and it was there that I realized that I needed to be doing more on the ground with my people, with transgender people of color. That really laid the foundation for me to then start my work at Transgender Law Center.

There, I was able to travel across the country, working with trans and gender non-conforming people all over the country. I’ve met trans Alaskans, I met trans folks throughout the Midwest, throughout other parts of the South and the West Coast. It was there that I realized that there’s so much power that is happening every day. There are trans women of color who are organizing around HIV and AIDS awareness, there are trans folks who are organizing politically, there are folks who are organizing around immigration, around disability. It’s really been about how we can tie those seemingly disparate experiences together into this larger collective movement.

I’ve been thankful to work, particularly in the South and Midwest, with black trans women who are hungry for healing, hungry for transforming their communities to be less sites of violence and more sites of power and positive influence. And I’m thankful to be doing that work with Black Trans Circles and really figuring out how we can not only save ourselves but also save our families and our communities.

Photography by Kris Graves for HuffPost; Hair/makeup by Miyako J Beauty

I love that you focus on these geographic locations. You’re from the South, I’m from the Midwest — we grew up seeing how vulnerable the people around us were. And a lot of times black folks in these places, they just don’t get that proper attention. You’ve married your activist work and your journalist work, and a lot of times in journalism, folks say that’s something that you shouldn’t do. How do you feel like your work in advocating has that impacted your journalism?

I think that I have realized particularly in my social justice work that I am always an organizer, no matter what space I’m in. So I have refined my approach to storytelling and journalism to be more around cultural organizing and what that means. For me, it means that we’re not just writing articles, we’re not just regurgitating facts, we are documenting history in real time. Particularly for the LGBTQ community, that is especially important because we know that there are so many stories that have been lost or that were lost for decades. And they’re such an important element to knowing your history and knowing that there are people who were like you and existed in a time before you. And so I’m really interested in how we can continue to pay that forward to future generations.

I also think that it’s really about being authentic in every aspect possible. And so for me, I’m not gonna lie and say I don’t have an agenda. I do have an agenda, yes I am a journalist, yes I am a writer, but I also want my people to be free and I also want my people to have the best opportunities possible in the world. I can’t do that if I pretend that their stories aren’t different from mainstream stories. And so that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in elevating those different threads of stories that we don’t often hear, particularly trans and gender non-conforming people, people of color, bisexual, pansexual people. I’m also interested in how we can better weave those threads together with the other identities in our communities. So it’s not about silencing anyone or any group, it’s about how we can bring them all to the same level field.

Who are some of the ancestors, some of the black history makers that inspire you to continue to do the work that you do today?

I have been so grateful to happen upon more information about particularly black trans and gender non-conforming people who have existed in times before this. I always have to elevate the work of the living legend Miss Major and all of the important work that she and people like Marsha P. Johnson really elevated around intersexuality before it was even coined, right? And so they were doing work around prison abolition and in particular around police brutality, around decriminalizing sex work and making a way for trans and gender non-conforming people when on the books it was really criminalized. I think that is something that we forget. It wasn’t that long ago that somebody like me couldn’t walk down the street being my full authentic self without the deep risk of facing state violence. And even to this day, you know, I can’t say that that won’t happen when I walk out of this door or when one of my sisters walks out of the door.

There are also just so many powerful people who were living in areas before that. Frances Thompson was a formerly enslaved woman who was in the Memphis riots in the South. She was a black trans woman who actually testified around being sexually assaulted in a time way before this current era, and so [I think about] just how much it took for someone with so many layers of marginalization to do that in the 1800s. Or someone like Mary Jones, who was a black trans woman in the early 1800s who was arrested and held in court and discussed her experiences as someone who always knew who she was and always was respected in her communities, even when the government or the court system didn’t respect her as a woman. I carry these women around with me as reminders of our potential when we think that no one will ever understand or no one will ever truly listen to our stories. It’s possible for us to still do the work that we need to do in the time that we’re living.

What prompted you to create the Black Trans Flag?

I really felt when I made it that we really needed something that represented the black trans experience specifically. For me, there were some tense feelings around how lost in the conversation trans people of color are. At that point, when we were talking about trans people, it was very much in the aftermath of Caitlyn Jenner coming out. In a way that kind of flattened and whitewashed trans experience. And so I think that it’s important for us to hold on to our own symbols and create our own symbols for ourselves, and I am so thankful for this moment because so many people are doing that. There is now a newer flag that has a black and brown stripe at the top of the rainbow flag to represent that fact that black and brown people are so forgotten in the LGBTQ movement — and also that we are some of the people who really lit the fire on the movement, something that hasn’t been discussed as fervently until recent years.

I think it’s also important for us to view ourselves with pride. So on the flip side, now that there is much more visibility for black and brown trans people, I think that there’s a way in which it has been — our experiences have been reduced to tragedy. So when you think about black trans women, you think about death and murder and all of these horrible things. I always want to elevate those people who have been taken from us or the risks that we are often in, but we also have so much joy, we also have so much brilliance, we also are architects of a world that everyone else is trying to catch up to that is about transcending these standards and restrictions around gender. And that’s an important piece of creating a symbol that represents all of the story and not just one part of it.

Photography by Kris Graves for HuffPost; Hair/makeup by Miyako J Beauty

That’s really important. I think about trans kids who are on social media now, and most of the stories that they can see — Dana Martin just became the first known black transgender woman to be murdered this year. And I think about the representations and finding that balance, and that’s why I look to — and I feel like a lot of people look to — people like you to help us navigate that and understand that balance. What do you hope for future generations?

That’s a big question. I really hope for a world in which individuals are less controlled by the expectations of others. Obviously I think when it comes to gender, there’s so much that holds us back with our labels. Even for me as a trans woman, I know you know on some level that is an expansive cutting-edge idea of thinking about gender, but I am OK with being obsolete in the future. And I think we all have to be OK with that, and I think it is very possible that I will have descendants who don’t use any of these labels at all, and just exist with more levity and more freedom than I could ever imagine. So that’s what I hope for. That’s what I fight for. I think it even goes beyond gender. I think that it includes race, it includes all of these different labels that on one level help us better understand ourselves but in other ways can isolate us. I think the key to solving a lot of the issues in the world is breaking that isolation.

I hope that they have joy without any strings attached to it. Just pure joy, just happiness around being alive, around breathing, around having others to bounce off of and love and speak with and analyze the world with. Those are the things that I hope for in this moment.

Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson. Hair and makeup by Miyako J Beauty.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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